Note: Since publishing this blog post, I've released a full-length, 17 page guide on Creative Avoidance. Click here to download it for free.
"Did you publish that blog post yet?"
"No, but I did clean my desk, sort my email inbox, and re-organize my entire bookshelf by last name."
Funny how when we have something important to do, we suddenly find a million other problems to solve. Have you ever become incredibly productive at one thing just to avoid doing something else?
Creative Avoidance is Not Procrastination
Procrastination is easier to deal with. When you aren't being productive at all, you can catch yourself. Just use an app like SelfControl to block Facebook, splash some water on your face, and get back to work.
Creative avoidance is a different beast. It covers its own tracks by creating the illusion that you are making progress. It lets you feel productive without prioritizing. This is so much more dangerous.
The chances that you will spend the entire day on Facebook are slim. But you can get lost in creative avoidance for hours, even days. In order to overcome creative avoidance, you need to beat it at its own game.
Here are three to ways to rewire your brain for productivity:
One of the best ways to make sure something gets done is by setting a deadline. Here's the thing: most of us rely on other people (teachers, bosses, etc.) for our deadlines. Then we screw around until the night before.
There are two problems with doing this. First, we waste all of that extra time. Instead of consciously filling the space, we spread out into it. Second, we never learn how to keep ourselves accountable. Then we fail once we finally do decide to take the initiative.
The greatest figures in history did not create things on someone else's deadline. No one cared as much as they did about what they were doing. Steve Jobs didn't wait for someone to tell him to build a better computer. It wasn't an assignment in some class. It came from a vision that he had in his head, and he kept himself accountable.
Having said that, you can learn to use the power of social approval to you advantage. Ask a friend to check in on your progress. Promise her $20 if you don't do something by the end of the day/week/month. Just knowing that she is going to ask will keep you motivated. And believe me, she'll ask. But it's still on you to create that system of accountability in the first place.
2. Small Chunks
Creative avoidance is most common right at the beginning of a task. It starts when you convince yourself that you just need to do one more thing before you get to work. Two hours later, you still haven't started.
It happens when you are overwhelmed. When you are staring at a blank page and have 50 more pages to write. The thought of going from 0 to 50 is too much to think about, so you stall.
The key is to break your task down into bite-sized pieces and then to focus only on the next most important step.
Instead of putting this on your daily to-do list:
- Work on blog post
- Write one paragraph about breaking things up into small chunks
See the difference? The first one isn't an action step at all. The second one makes you want to start writing. Small steps build momentum.
3. Clean Cuts
Creative avoidance can also creep in during the task itself. This is usually due to burnout. Creative avoidance doesn't happen when we are in the zone. It happens when we have been working on something for too long.
This is why frequent breaks are important. At some point, you are going to hit a wall. The more worked up you get, the more likely you are to creatively avoid. Better to just walk away. Go outside, get a workout in, or spend time with friends. Then come back fresh.
Making clean cuts means that when we are working, we are fully working. Same with recharging. When we let the two flow into each other, we accomplish neither. So set a timer for 90 minutes, focus, and then force yourself to take a 30 minute break (even if you don't want to). That way, you will know exactly what to do next when you return to your work.
The Bigger Issue
I want you to realize something: this isn't a post about productivity. If your mind can beat you on a small scale, do you really think it can't fool you on a larger one?
Many of us creatively avoid something for our entire life.
What are you putting off that you should be doing? What is the story that you tell yourself to justify it?
If we recognize our patterns, we can start to change them. Keep yourself accountable, break things into small chunks, and make clean cuts. And when you feel the fear, lean into it.
The thing that scares you the most is exactly what you should to be doing right now.